The Great Battery Race

Since the discovery of fire, energy has been hard to obtain and easy to store. Wood had to be cut down, cut up, dried, and hauled to where it was going to be burned. But once you had it, nothing special was required: just let it sit there through cold or hot temperatures, in sunlight or shade. Fossil fuels are similar: they must be found, extracted, and refined. But once obtained, they can be stored in piles or tanks with no special needs. Our thinking has been organized around this historically universal fact. Our focus is on “how will we get it?”, more than on “how will we store it?”.

But the times they are a changing. While the price of fossil fuels inexorably increases (we extract the easy ones first and then, as they run out, must move on to ever more difficult-and-costly-to-extract sources), the cost of wind and photovoltaic power is steadily decreasing as we improve manufacturing and technology, and realize the economies of scale. Barclay’s recently downgraded the entire U.S. electric industry because of this trend, and the California ISO reports that there are times of the day when they have more electricity in the grid than they can use; they can’t give it away. We are entering a time when wind and photovoltaic energy is relatively easy, and almost free, to obtain but—so far—maddeningly difficult to store.

As a result, a great battery race has been engaged. While lithium-ion batteries appear to be the winner when weight matters, such as for cars and phones, they appear to be too expensive for storing electricity on a grid, or even home-use, scale.

There are many entrants in this race, all trying to build batteries that are inexpensive, work well with the grid, and can be manufactured at scale. Weight doesn’t matter, price does. Two of my favorites are Donald Sadoway’s Ambri, and Aquion Energy out of Carnegie Mellon. Both of these start-ups are using inexpensive, abundant raw materials and simple, rapidly-scalable manufacturing. Both already have batteries in service. It won’t be long before such batteries are ubiquitous and the combination of easy-to-obtain energy and inexpensive storage dramatically changes the energy industry. And, for the first time in human history, changes how we think about obtaining and storing energy.

We have seen how effective policy has had profound, positive effects on the atmosphere and our economy. And while we have failed to enact similar policy efforts for greenhouse gases, it appears that simple economics may lead to the needed result of leaving fossil fuels unburned and in the ground.

In the meantime, the Great Battery Race will be fun to watch and will make the winners rich. Very rich.